Good incubation needs a clear purpose
What happens when you get 50 social incubators together in a room? Refreshingly frank and reflective discussion. The participants at the Good Incubation event were aware that their new and burgeoning movement faces a number of challenges. Drawing heavily on the methods of business incubation developed in Silicon Valley, social incubation is sometimes criticised as being just flavour of the month, seducing people with its novel language (if you think the term ‘incubation’ is oblique, wait until you get to pivoting, upside and downside risk, 4x, demo days and burn rates). Can it live up to its hype?
So what’s the point?
A recurring theme at the event was that there’s little clarity and less consensus about the purpose of social venture incubation. And without knowing what it aims to achieve, it’s hard to tell if it works.
The lack of clarity probably stems at least in part from the fact that incubators are still learning about how they can create value for social ventures. Many speakers at the event described how they were continually uncovering new needs and trying new methodologies.
Verb + target population + outcome
The Unreasonable Institute in Colorado challenges social entrepreneurs to describe their intended impact using the formula ‘verb + target population + outcome’. Preferably in ten words or fewer.
At the Good Incubation event, we heard about a lot of things that incubation might be good for. So, using Unreasonable’s format, here are a few potential impact statements for social incubators still searching for their mission in life:
1. Helping social entrepreneurs develop better services and products. Incubators say they’re doing this by getting social entrepreneurs to focus on meeting customer needs as well as social value – both are crucial, and they aren’t always the same.
2. Getting social entrepreneurs’ products / services to market more quickly. We heard how incubators taught social entrepreneurs design principles or got them to focus on putting out a ‘minimum viable product’ rather than agonising over perfection before going to market. Incubators also give teams physical space and time to focus on developing their ideas.
3. Helping social ventures to get investment. Some incubators have a primary focus on securing investment for their ventures. Many participants talked about how their programmes helped to fill a gap in seed funding – the vast majority of the investments Village Capital makes, for example, are the first investments that in those social ventures.
4. Influencing others to support social ventures more effectively. Several incubators described how they’d developed a wider ‘ecosystem’ role that wasn’t what they initially set out to do, but seemed increasingly important. Examples included working with universities and colleges to promote social entrepreneurship, educating customers and investors or even working with local government to set up a social tech ‘cluster’.
Getting these types of statements clearer is the first step in creating what the Nesta Standards of Evidence call an ‘account of impact’ and doing so might help start to tackle some of the other questions that came up at the event - for example, is social incubation a cost-effective way of supporting social ventures to create social impact? What is working and not working? And how can we learn faster?
So what have we missed? Tell us how you’d complete this sentence: Social incubation can [verb] [target population] [outcome].